David Holden was murdered in Egypt in December, 1977, while this book was still a work in progress, and it was later finished by Richard Johns. Both are journalists, in the best sense of the profession, and both have done an outstanding job meticulously researching the origins of the present Saudi state. Some say that Holden pried too deeply, and that is why he was murdered, others ascribe his death to a case of mistaken identity; almost certainly the truth will never be known. Certainly his death is part of the reason why this book is now relatively "obscure," despite the fact that it is a very rare, and much needed account of the Kingdom's creation. There is one other book that also does an excellent job in covering this same period - from the first recorded origins of the Saudi family, through 1980 - Robert Lacey's "The Kingdom." I've read them both, compared them both, and although they differ on such matters as Abdul Aziz's age when he re-took Riyadh in 1902, I cannot say which one is better - either is an essential book for those seeking an understanding and more knowledge on the creation of the Saudi state; to read both is also highly recommended for any Westerner who believes a better understanding is the first step towards ending the current policy of conducting endless war.
The book contains some excellent, straightforward maps that illustrate how and when Abdul Aziz consolidated the present country, as well as where the major oil fields are. There are also numerous photographs of the principal characters. Holden & Johns' writing style is crisp and methodical. The characters and events reflect the sweeping panorama of the country. Each chapter commences with a highly appropriate epigraph, either from one of the principal actors, or from the wider field of knowledge, to underscore how these specifics tie into the broader human experience. In contrasting the weighting given to various periods in the history of the latest rise of the House of Saud, 40% of Lacey's book involved covering the events in the peninsula prior to the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932; in Holden & Johns' book, this period is covered in 20% of the book.
So much of the West's perceptions of the Kingdom are received through intermediaries who promote a fantasy view. One of the most well-read, and famous, is T. E. Lawrence. Other historians, such as David Fromkin, in his excellent book, "A Peace to End All Peace," have made the point that telling the truth was not among Lawrence's virtues. Holden and John confirm the same position, contrasting Lawrence with Harry St. John Philby, stating: "Where Lawrence wove spells of fantasy and imagination, Philby was all for bluntness. Where Lawrence wrought his wartime work into an exquisite, evocative and, it seems, partly fanciful tale of desert loves, betrayals and derring-do, Philby set about his great work of exploration with meticulous method and scrupulous regard for fact..." (p 65) Of course, there are other fantasy views, most recently, "Finding Nouf."
Holden and Johns' own meticulous work covers several dominant topics in Saudi history, after the creation of the Kingdom, quite well. The discovery and initial development of the oil resource is covered quite well, from a non-Aramco perspective. (which the authors refer to as "mammon".) The internal power struggle(s) in the Royal family, after the death of Abdul Aziz, during the ineffective and wasteful rule of Saud are also presented in a factual manner. Eventually he was deposed, and Faisal assumed the leadership position, in name as well as fact. External developments, particularly those with Nasser, his pan-Arab movement, and the Yemen civil war are also well depicted.
The final 40% of the book is devoted to the 10 year period, 1971 though 1980, and covers the response to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the oil embargo, the commencement of the development of the infrastructure in the Kingdom ("mammon rampant"), and "the return of the Ikhwan," the taking of the mosque in Makkah in 1979 by fundamentalists. There are some wonderful nuggets of insight not discussed in other books, such as the head of the Ulema, bin Baz's belief that the earth was flat, and the sun revolved around it (p262) (much to the embarrassment of King Faisal); a quote from Kissinger's own doctoral dissertation: "... not shy away from duplicity, cynicism or unscrupulousness, all of which are acceptable tools of statecraft." (p 348); and after the death of King Faisal, a quote from the Washington Post, revealing the all too consummate "Orientalism" mindset: "Faisal probably did more damage to the West than any other single man since Adolf Hitler." (p382); and that the Israeli air force, in a blatant disregard for a country's air space and sovereignty, did a "in your eye" touch and go at the Tabuk air base in 1977. (p 479)
Holden and John covered the story of a "Death of a Princess," like Lacey, but did not assign it a separate chapter, realizing that the taking of the mosque in Makkah was a much more significant event, and therefore only that event should merit such coverage. That chapter poignantly ends with the dazed plea from one of the dubbed followers of this latest "Messiah" (Mahdi) when, upon surrendering, he asks: "What of the army of the north"? Sadly Holden did not live to document the Kingdom's turn "to the right", certainly socially, following this event, one that has been followed, and perhaps only reversed, following the suicide bombing of compounds in the Kingdom in the first decade of the present century.
This is an excellent historical account of the Kingdom, and should be essential reading in every Middle East studies center in the West, as well as by those individuals desiring more information on one of the most important countries in the world today.